Is This Brooklyn or Midtown?: The Elm

10/23/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo by Austin McAllister

The Elm
160 N. 12th Street, Williamsburg
4 L’s

In a dish called Flavors of Bouillabaisse, a tiny mélange of seafood—a succulent razor clam, a morsel of lobster, a plump block of halibut fillet—sat in the small round hollow of a wide white plate. Doused with a frothy, perfumey orange-fennel broth and garnished with a delicate fennel blossom, this dish tasted as though a wizard had concentrated the essence of a big, steamy bowl of the traditional Provençal fish stew into a few divine bites. At the latest restaurant from Paul Liebrandt, the celebrated chef formerly of Tribeca’s Corton, each dish we sampled was more exquisite than the last. Violet mustard, at once subtle, spicy and floral, brought depth to a traditional steak tartare (topped with shaved radish and microherbs). In another dramatic china bowl, a creamy, citrusy coconut-lime tom yum broth swirled around tiny, cloudlike gnudi and a perfectly seared scallop. A darker ceramic dish brought out the artistic dabs of white horseradish crème served with tiny bricks of slow-roasted duck, its texture like butter once you cracked through the toasty, honey-glazed skin.

The boldly flavored dishes, plated with tweezer-precision, might make you wonder whether you’ve inadvertently left Brooklyn for Manhattan. Though the space feels wide and slightly cavernous, the tables are tucked tightly together and lighted by giant overhead bulbs jutting from angled wire stems—the sort of lighting that might provoke a flashback if you’ve ever been abducted by aliens.

And the high-end fare didn’t really match up with our server’s house-party friendliness. At one point, he casually leaned over two tables to ask, “Anybody need another round?” When the young woman to my right asked for another bourbon-peach cocktail, the waiter pointed at me and said, “Sorry, she got the last one.” I turned to apologize to this stranger, her face just inches from my own on our crowded banquette, when she shot me a look of horror and whispered, “Could the drinks be premixed?” Seriously, what is this? TGI Friday’s? I warned her against the hand-soap-flavored lavender-tequila cocktail, and she stuck to the wine list. Cocktails aside, it’s a pretty good house party that ends with the great and powerful Liebrandt’s tidy take on Eton mess, in which pristine puffs of meringue join juicy strawberries and a dollop of sweet, floral foam to form a heavenly dessert.